When Robbie Balenger arrived in Tuscola on Tuesda evening, he had run from California to get there. Balenger has run more than 2,000 miles since mid-March, when he began a transcontinental run in Huntington Beach, Calif. He expects to get to New York City on May 29.
The 34-year-old Denver resident is using his run across the country to promote a plant-based lifestyle. Balenger has been vegan for about a year and a half. He found that after he made the change in his diet, he was much less sore and recovered more quickly from runs, and he believes it has made it possible to take on the transcontinental run. In addition to health and performance benefits, Balenger was motivated by the environmental benefits and ethical considerations of not consuming animal products.
Balenger has been averaging 45 miles per day. He’s traveling with several crew members who prepare his food, drive the van Balenger sleeps in and a camper they use, meet him every five miles along the way and sometimes run alongside him.
He ran through a blizzard with 35 mph winds at 9,000 feet on a mountain pass in New Mexico; through snow and sleet in Oklahoma, then 85-degree temperatures two days later; and in a torrential downpour in Missouri, until lightning forced him to wait out the storm.
After the monotony of Oklahoma’s terrain, Balenger found Missouri to be beautiful. "I grew up in northeast Georgia and it’s very similar. The topography feels like home," he said.
Since he began his run, he’s moved five turtles off the road and collected 20 license plates. He celebrated running 2,000 miles near Bowling Green, Mo., last Thursday, and ran across the Mississippi River into Illinois on Saturday.
"The first 26 days were complete hell. That was my body adjusting and finding equilibrium. From then on, my fitness has increased. It’s gotten better," he said.
Balenger had shin splints early in the journey but recovered after changing his style of shoes. Blisters are common, and he tapes his feet to keep them at bay. He also suffered tendonitis in his left leg and ankle. That and extreme fatigue led Balenger’s crew to insist he take day 20 off -- the only day he hasn’t run since he began.
Balenger is consuming about 9,000 calories per day. His meals include oatmeal with chia seeds, maple syrup and bananas; 1,000-calorie smoothies made with coconut milk, fruit, chia seeds and a soy-based protein powder; peanut butter sandwiches; vegan cheese quesadillas; rice and beans; fruit; and plant-based camping meals.
The hardest part, he said, has been confronting the knowledge each morning that he has to run 45 miles again.
"Seventy-five days is a long time. The magnitude of time is something I didn’t grasp completely. It’s a long time to be away from my fiancee and life at home," Balenger said.
But, he said, "it’s quite nice to disengage from the media -- not getting alerts on my phone, not seeing the news every day -- to focus on the run and interacting with people across the country. We’re really not as polarized as alerts on our phone tell us."
When Balenger hit the 2,000-mile mark last week, he wrote on his blog: "If there were ever a metaphor for the life, I think I’m living some version of it right now. I’m learning. Learning about gratitude, learning about patience, learning about how to trust that setbacks are not permanent."
To follow his transcontinental run, look for @robbiebalenger on Instagram or read his blog at https://www.plantpoweredmission.com/robbie-balenger.
Jodi Heckel, a writer for the University of Illinois News Bureau, is a runner and triathlete. You can email her at email@example.com, or follow her at twitter.com/jodiheckel. Her blog is at www.news-gazette.com/blogs/starting-line/.
Photos: Top: Robbie Balenger on the road in Missouri. Bottom: Balenger (foreground) running with crew member Elliott Preather in New Mexico. Photos courtesy Robbie Balenger